Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/18/19

A Northwoods Almanac for Oct. 18 – 31, 2019  

Sightings – Frost, Witch Hazel, Kirtland’s Warblers, Robins, Rusty Blackbirds 
We experienced our first frost (and snowfall) in Manitowish on 10/12. Back in the 1980s when we first moved here, and then on into the 1990s, we nearly always experienced our first frost on 8/20 – green tomatoes were the rule! In the last decade, we are now harvesting ripe tomatoes and zucchinis late into September and early October.
Conversely, our witch hazel shrub flowered back on 9/17, an extremely early date, and it continues to flower.  

Kirtland’s warblers were recently removed as a federally endangered species. The songbird met recovery goals after years of intensive habitat management, mostly in lower Michigan where the core population lives. Listed as endangered since the late 1960s, Kirtland’s dipped to a low of 167 pairs in 1974 and again in 1987 before it began a steady climb toward recovery. The current population is estimated to be around 2,000 pairs. The delisting of the Kirtland’s Warbler is cause for celebration and proof that the Endangered Species Act works. 
            In Wisconsin, the bird remains endangered – as of 2017, we have 20 nesting Kirtland’s pairs.
Every early October, a large flock of robins appears in our yard to feast on our mountain ash berries. We’ve had the largest crop of berries ever, so they’ve been busy! I’ve planted another 10 mountain ash trees, so when they mature, I’m curious how many robins will find our little yard in Manitowish.
Bev Engstrom echoed the robin theme, writing on 10/10: “Migrating robins stopped off in my yard and found the crabapple tree. Cleaned 'er up in two days.” She also sent a beautiful photo of the robins.

photo by Bev Engstrom

Robin migration is in full tilt everywhere. Hawk Ridge in Duluth tallied 3,655 robins on 10/7, with a seasonal total on 10/11 of 8,650.
            Rusty blackbirds are also coming through now – look for the yellow eye to differentiate them from red-winged blackbirds. As of 10/11, 3,333 have been tallied, with 1,738 on 10/7 as the high count on Hawk Ridge.

Hawk Ridge
            Speaking of Hawk Ridge, as of 10/11, counters have tallied 166,682 individuals from 152 species of birds including the following: 
Broad-winged hawks: 22,910 total, with highs of 8,314 on 9/23 and 2,707 on 9/25.
Blue jays: 24,810 so far, with highs of 5,307 on 9/19 and 3,428 on 9/23.
Sharp-shinned hawks: 16,053 so far, with highs of 1,167 on 9/16 and 1,620 on 9/23.
Yellow-rumped warblers came through in big numbers on 9/25 - 1,227!
Unidentified warblers (think about trying to identify warblers as they fly overhead) totalled 13,470 on 9/24.
Cedar waxwings: 8,043 so far, with a high of 1,605 on 9/24.            
Hawk Ridge is not only along the flightpath of raptors and songbirds, but also of owls. On 10/4, they captured and banded a remarkable 168 saw-whet owls.

Trees Drowning
Water levels have been exceptionally high on most lakes this year with many shoreline trees and shrubs inundated all summer long. While paddling, I’ve seen very significant plant die-offs along shorelines, particularly on seepage lakes. 

high water on Pallette Lake in July
It’s unclear to me what the upper limit of tolerance for high water is for all of our trees and shrubs, so I got in contact with Dom Ciruzzi, a PhD candidate at UW Madison who is conducting a shoreline study at the Trout Lake Limnology Station. He noted the following:            “There is a gradient of responses in different trees to flood tolerance. Some trees (red maple, bur oak, elms, sycamore, and more) can tolerate several weeks to months of inundation, whereas others (sugar maple, pines, red oak, cedar, and more) will likely be severely damaged by a week or less of inundation. However, even the trees that can tolerate several weeks to months of inundation will likely die if lake levels do not drop in that growing season and into the next year.
“The mechanism killing these trees is primarily to do with the connection between oxygen and roots. Roots need air to breathe and when all of the pore space in the soil is filled with water, the roots cannot respire, which leads to root death, reduced nutrient uptake, and if prolonged enough, tree mortality. Once all the roots are dead, it is pretty hard for a tree to bounce back – but in some instances the tree can survive if the flooding recedes and has not killed off all the roots. 
“My research into trees and groundwater, and recently lake levels, has me considering how these current lake levels fit in the bigger picture. I'm speculating here, but it seems to me that the Northwoods in particular has experienced a wider variability in lake levels over the past decade than they have in the last 75-100 years. In 2008-2010, a severe drought lowered lake levels to an all-time low, and about 10 years later to the present, lake levels are at an all-time high. We know from previous research that these fluctuations occur about every decade, but the most recent fluctuation (from 2008-2019) has been very dramatic. One might expect within 10 years for the lake levels to decline again, as part of the natural cycle of water levels in the area, but we'll have to wait and see! 
“Likely, if water levels increase into next year, I'd expect a lot more trees to die. There is also a gradient of tree composition on the shores of lakes to the uplands. Trees in the 100- or 1000-year floodplain are likely not adapted to periodic flooding and would not withstand a season of high lake levels that reach these upland trees. I'd hate to see it, but if lake levels continue to rise in the area into next year and possibly into subsequent years, I'd expect unprecedented tree die off on the shores of most lakes in the area. 
“In some areas, I'm observing the shallowest groundwater levels I've seen in the past 5 years I've been monitoring these forests. I'd also expect in some areas that the groundwater will or has already reached the surface, and at these locations a very shallow water table will likely kill off trees that are not used to wetland conditions.”
On the plus side of this dismaying projection, Dom adds that “these dead trees on the shores of lakes will likely fall into the lake and provide very valuable habitat and space for fish to escape predators and reproduce safely, so another side of this is that with the death of these trees, there may be new life and safety for fish in these lakes.” 

Winter Finch Report
            Ron Pittaway, an ornithologist in Toronto, Ontario, issues his “Winter Finch Forecast” every autumn detailing the likelihood of Canadian finches moving south for the upcoming winter. His prediction for this winter flatly states, “This is not an irruption (flight) year for winter finches in the East. Most winter finches will stay in the north.”
The availability of food determines whether birds come south or not, thus Pittway goes on to detail the overall stock of seeds and fruits: “There are abundant spruce cone crops across the boreal forest in Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland. Most conifers (except pines), birches and other seed crops are good to excellent in much of the Northeast.” 
Pittaway then specifically looks at the needs of individual species and notes, for instance, that pine grosbeaks rely in large part on mountain ash berries, and there’s an abundant crop of them. Likewise, bohemian waxwings also rely on mountain ash berries, so they, too, should mostly remain north. Common redpolls, on the other hand, bank on birch, alder, and spruce seeds being bountiful, and they, too, are abundant. 
So, for these northern birds, when the cupboards are stocked, little reason exists to risk the dangers of migration. They’re highly adapted to cold temperatures, making winter food their major limiting factor.
This is Pittaway’s 21st annual winter finch forecast, and while he’s not always been perfect in his prognostications, he’s usually a very good bet. 
Thus, our feeders may be lonelier than usual this winter. But take heart in the fact that this is very good news for the birds – they will be well fed further north and likely have a good reproductive spring because of a less stressful winter. Their absence, while our loss, is an overall gain for the birds. 

Celestial Events
            The peak Orionid meteor shower occurs on 10/21 – look for an average of 20 meteors per hour. 
            From 10/22-10/25, the average low temperature in the Minocqua area drops to 32° for the first time since April 22. Minocqua averages 183 days with low temperatures at or below freezing.
            New moon occurs on 10/27. 
            On 10/29, look after dusk for Venus about 4° below the waxing crescent moon, and for Mercury just above it, about 3° south of the moon.

Thought for the Week
            “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people, but it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” – David Orr

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for 10/4/19

A Northwoods Almanac for Oct. 4-17, 2019  by John Bates

Loon Parents and Adopted Mallard Chick Update
I was recently asked what had happened to the mallard chick that was raised this summer by a loon pair in Oneida County. I contacted Linda Grenzer, who has been keeping an eye on this very rare adoption, and this is what she wrote back: “On 8/18, I was on the lake in the evening. For the first 45 minutes, the 42-acre lake was vacant of any loon or duck. Then the unbanded female landed and started wailing on and off for about 15 minutes. I then heard a duck quacking behind me, and here the duckling was making a beeline to Mom. I’m not sure if the duckling landed or was hiding in the heavy vegetation, but it joined Mom the rest of the evening I was there. It actually tucked its head in its back and napped for about a half an hour in the center of the lake as Mom stood guard next to it.                                                                                                              
"The home owner saw them on and off after that. She did see the duck take flight and circle the lake a couple of times, but always landed back by mom and dad. The homeowner told me other ducks flew in, but this duckling never went by them.  On 9/8, the homeowner had told me she had not seen the duck or loons for over a week on her lake.
“So, I’m not sure if the duckling is alone or with one or both parents on another lake. No one ever observed this duckling close to another loon other than mom and dad . . . The attached picture is the last time in early August that I captured the female feeding the full-grown duckling a fish.” 
So, the story continues with this autumn’s conclusion yet to be written. The adult loons will begin their migration soon, if they haven’t already, leaving the mallard chick to determine its own lot. The loons will almost certainly migrate to the Gulf of Mexico, while mallards in northern Wisconsin are DNA-imprinted to wait to migrate until the lakes are near freezing, and then fly a relatively short distance to wherever open water beckons, or perhaps on to the Mississippi River. A few may even remain the winter if a water source stays open and food is readily available. 

Loons and Fishing Lures – Time for This to End
Linda and Kevin Grenzer also sent me an email with attached photos taken by Marge Gibson at REGI (Raptor Education Group in Antigo) of a juvenile loon chick that was wrapped in fishing line. Linda and Kevin had captured the loon the previous evening in Eagle River. The good news is that Marge has worked her magic, and the loon appears to be recovering well. Nevertheless, this is not an isolated incident. Loons with lures protruding from their mouths and entwined in fishing line are not an uncommon story. Linda and Kevin are often tasked with recovering these loons, and with the loons in their hands, they therefore see the often gruesome impacts. Here’s what they want you to know:
“This time of year juvenile loons are looking for an easy meal as they are learning to forage for themselves. The public needs to help prevent such entanglements by fishing responsibly . . . do not fish near loons. And dispose of line properly, not leaving monofilament line in lakes or on shore. If you accidentally hook a loon try to land it, call REGI (715-623-4015). Do not cut the line and let it go . . . it is a death sentence for this loon. Also, we need the public to let us know if they see an entangled loon; report this to REGI, so the loon can be helped.”

On a Lighter Note, Autumn Spaceships 
In October, most of the plant world is shutting down ahead of a long winter, but simultaneously, many are also seeking new worlds by sending out their seeds. To help the seeds travel as far as possible, plants utilize an amazing array of strategies. Some put a final gift wrap over the seeds, something bright, colorful, and sweet-tasting to encourage transport by way of digestive systems – think of a black cherry. Other plants like thistle choose to make their seeds sticky or bristly in order to hitch a ride to another town. Some create an aerodynamic appendage, like a milkweed’s silk parachute or a sugar maple’s winged helicopter. Still others coat their seeds in a waterproof jacket that acts like a PFD, floating the embryo down rivers to rest on a shoreline. 
Once in their new world, the seeds have sensors that will respond to the right combination of temperature, light, oxygen and moisture to initiate growth. If the conditions aren’t perfect, the seeds may not germinate for years until their sensors detect the right conditions. The record for patience may be ten thousand-year-old lupine seeds which were found in 1954 and then placed on wet filter paper where six seeds germinated within 48 hours. One plant, upon reaching 11 months of age, and after 10,000 years of dormancy, then bloomed. 
Timing is everything in the dispersal of seeds. Sugar maples drop their samaras, their helicopter seeds, right before they drop their leaves to help germination and deter predators.

Red oaks have evolved a similar strategy, typically shedding their acorns just before dropping most of their leaves. Their acorns benefit from the cover of newly fallen leaves, which ensures that some acorns will be hidden from predators, while others will be found and dispersed by squirrels and chipmunks intent on hiding their winter stores. 
Banner years for acorns come every three or four years. One researcher tracked 15,000 acorns that were dropped by one prolific tree. Deer, squirrels, and other animals ate 83 percent of them; 6 percent were attacked by weevils and insect larvae; and about 10 percent were naturally imperfect and failed to germinate. Less than 1 percent actually sprouted, and over half of those died as seedlings. Fortunately, only one acorn needs to survive to replace the adult tree above it. 
Whatever the strategy employed, it’s clear that NASA couldn’t have designed better spaceships than the seeds of most plants.

Riding the Wind
            Silky milkweed seeds typically burst from their pods sometime in late September and into October. The long seedpods, pointy and warty on the outside, conceal a treasure chest of hundreds of seeds, each one attached to a tuft of silvery white hairs. The slightest breeze lifts them off on a flight that will last as long as the wind holds out, though the seed will often detach and drop from its silky glider after only a few hundred yards.
            Surprisingly, milkweeds produce only about four seedpods per plant–a very low number given that an average plant has eight clusters of flowers with seventy-five flowers per cluster. Botanists don’t know why they are so unsuccessful in producing seeds, but if every flower produced a seedpod, that would be 600 seedpods per plant multiplied by hundreds of seeds in a pod! 

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
            Mary and I hiked several trails in the Porkies last week. Over the years, one of our favorite trails has been the East Presque Isle River Trail, in large part because of the enormous white pine that one comes to quickly, and which had certainly lived for centuries before it snapped off two summers ago. We had measured the diameter at 49 inches (diameter at breast height) in previous years, but unfortunately, we had no way to measure its height. What’s intriguing about its demise is that it was hollow, and while the inside of the tree was charred, the outside was unscathed. If this was due to natural forces, the only theory we can come up with is that the tree was hit by lightning. However, it’s also possible that some yahoo(s) found a hole in the outer bark leading to the hollow core and thought it would be just great to stuff some flaming material through the hole and see what happened. 

            Who knows? I’m sticking with the lightning theory simply because it honors this grandmother tree that could well have been four centuries old. I’d like to think that we humans felt a deep wonder and reverence for this tree, and not an astonishing disrespect.  
            The estimated old-growth hemlock-hardwood forest left in the upper Midwest is only 72,000 acres – about 0.2 percent of what was here historically. Nearly half of that is in the Porkies, the only ecosystem-sized old-growth forest we have left. 
            A good portion of the Porkies was cut; of its current 60,000 acres, only 35,000 are classified as old-growth. Aldo Leopold, among many others, was instrumental in saving what was left during WW2 when it was about to be further cleared for the war effort. He wrote in his essay “The Last Stand”: “[The Porcupines] portray a chapter in national history which we should not be allowed to forget. When we abolish the last sample of the Great Uncut, we are, in a sense, burning books. I am convinced that most Americans of the new generation have no idea what a decent forest looks like. The only ways to tell them is to show them. To preserve a remnant of decent forest for public education is surely a proper function of government . . . I would like to see the remnant of uncut timber in and around the Porcupines (about 100,00 acres) acquired and preserved as an act of national contrition, as the visible reminder of an unsolved problem, and as an education exhibit . . . The mere existence of such a token-forest might hasten the day when the green robe again extends over the Lake States, and when the cutting and using of mature timber becomes an act of normal land-cropping, rather than an act of land-pillage.” 

bear's head tooth
tree ear
Rain and more rain has been the rule this summer and fall, and mushrooms continue to respond joyously. I’ve attached photos of four unusual looking ones: tree ear, bear’s head tooth, black trumpet, and crown-tipped coral.
crown-tipped coral

black trumpet
            We have at least a dozen yellow-rumped warblers in our yard as I’m writing this (9/30), all taking bites of the crabapples and mountain ash berries that are prolific this year. Robins came in today as well, and are feasting on the mountain ash berries. I suspect the trees will be stripped in a few days, but we’ll see – it’s been a big year for mountain ashes. I also watched a red squirrel hanging upside down in one of our white spruce trees and nipping off spruce cones as fast as it could, creating a rain of cones to store in its winter pantry. 

Celestial Events
For planet viewing in October, look after dusk in the southwest for both Saturn and Jupiter. Venus will also appear in the southwest, but not until mid-month. Before dawn, look for Mars low in the southeast.
On 10/5, look for Saturn just above the first quarter moon. The peak Draconid meteor shower occurs in the predawn on 10/8. On 10/13, the full moon, variously known as the Hunter’s Moon, the Changing Season Moon, and the Falling Leaves Moon, will occur. And by 10/14, we’re down to 11 hours of daylight.

Thought for the Week
            “The cost of a solar panel has dropped 90 percent in the last decade. The cheapest, easiest way to produce electricity around the world now is with sun and wind . . . There’s no long-term future for the fossil-fuel industry . . . Fifty years from now we’re definitely going to run this world on sun and wind. The question is: Can we make the transition fast enough to avoid a broken world?” – Bill McKibben

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at

Friday, September 27, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/2019

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/20 – 10/3/2019  

Sightings: Acorns, Reds, Trumpeters, Nighthawks, Flickers, Monarchs, Cooper’s Hawk, Dagger Moth
It appears to be a great acorn year. Wherever we’ve been walking or bike riding under northern red oaks, we’ve been squashing innumerable acorns. This, of course, is good news for all the species of wildlife that can eat and digest these tannin-rich morsels. Acorns grow oak trees, but they also grow deer, gray and red squirrels, chipmunks, wild turkeys, crows, flying squirrels, rabbits, blue jays, grouse, raccoons, wood ducks, and more than 100 U.S. vertebrate species
Northern flickers are now being seen commonly along roadsides, foraging for ants in the gravel. While other woodpeckers are up hammering trees to extract insects, flickers generally work the ground, searching for ants and beetle larvae, their main food, though they occasionally pound on trees to get their insect dinners. 
Flickers seek out ants and other insects by probing and hammering in soil with their powerful bills, then store them in a crop to carry food to hatchlings. They do, however, shift their diet to fruits in late fall and winter when insects are far harder to come by. 
Flickers migrate south and are typically last seen here in late September to early October. 
            Brilliant fall colors are appearing, particularly near wet areas where trees are stressed by too much water. Scarlet colors are being seen in abundance: five of my favorites include red maple, blackberry, sumac, woodbine, and poison ivy.
Bob Von Holdt sent me an update on a pair of trumpeter swans he’s been watching in the Presque Isle area. They hatched six cygnets in June and there are five left as of 9/11.

Ted Rulseh observed hundreds of nighthawks over Birch Lake on 9/6, and noted that “midges were hatching. It was quite a spectacle . . . They were everywhere, with all those wings beating and absolutely not a sound to be heard. They weren’t even making their calls.”
On 9/6, Judith Bloom sent photos of a monarch butterfly that had just emerged from its chrysalis. 

A Cooper’s hawk is eating songbirds around our feeders in Manitowish. We’ve had merlins and sharp-shinned hawks utilizing our feeder birds over the years, but this is the first time we’ve ever had a Cooper’s.
And finally, a “Fingered Dagger Moth” (Acronicta dactylina) crossed in front of us on one of the dikes in Powell Marsh. We’re still learning our caterpillar identification, so it’s always fun to figure one out, though I needed the assistance of Linda Williams, the DNR’s forest health specialist for northeastern Wisconsin, to finally ID this one.

Honey Mushrooms
            It’s possible that honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea and Armillaria galica) are trying to take over the world, or at least a portion of the Northwoods. With all our rain, these mushrooms have proliferated in woodlands as well as on people’s lawns where there is buried decaying wood. We’ve had colonies of them sprout up through our grass, an emergence we’ve never seen in the 35 years we’ve lived here.

            Also called cinnamon tops or stumpies, these are gilled mushrooms typically found in clusters on stumps or trunks of living hardwoods like northern red oak, but also on birches, aspens, and maples. 
            They’re a sought-after edible, though there are some toxic look-alikes. So, remember, all mushrooms are edible once.
            We’ve also seen large numbers of late flowering Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) blooming in profusion, which in our experience is very late for this plant. But with all the rain and the high water levels we have, a lot of plants are behaving out of their “normal” zone. 
            The reason I bring up Indian pipe is because Indian pipes parasitize the honey mushrooms, which in turn are parasitizing hardwood trees, often causing a root rot that ultimately leads to an earlier mortality. 
            If you find Armillaria galica, you’ve found the species responsible for the “Humungous Fungus” that was discovered near Crystal Falls, MI, and which was found to be a single mushroom covering 30 acres of forest and estimated to be 1,500 years old. 

Powell Marsh Prairie
            A portion of Powell Marsh was planted with a variety of prairie seeds after a prescribed burn in May, 2015, and the result has been a truly lovely display of prairie wildflowers, including bee balm, yellow coneflower, and black-eyed Susan. The flowers have been absolutely loaded with pollinating bees whenever we’ve been there, so it’s been a very buzzy place. 
My hope is that after future prescribed burns on other areas of the marsh, the DNR will scatter prairie seeds again and alter the flora from an array of mostly non-native species to native grassland species. Kudos to the DNR for this practice.

Loon Population Declining 
This from Walter Piper, long-time loon researcher in Oneida County, posting on his blog on 9/11/19 ( “If you have been following the blog, you might recall that the number of chicks per pair has fallen sharply since I began studying loons in 1993. Although I had not reported it yet, loss of chicks after hatching has also increased significantly since I began my work. That is, many pairs hatch two young but lose one or both of them nowadays. Furthermore, even chicks that survive to five weeks of age are now in poorer condition (as measured by body mass) than in 1998 or 2006 or 2013. In short, breeding pairs in northern Wisconsin now raise fewer and less robust chicks than they did 25 years ago.                    
 “ . . . I followed a simple line of reasoning. If loon pairs are producing fewer and weaker chicks, then fewer chicks must be able to migrate to the wintering ground. And if fewer juveniles make it to Florida, then fewer should survive long enough to return to northern Wisconsin (which happens at 2 to 4 years of age) and look for a breeding territory of their own. So, declining chick production should result in a reduced population of nonbreeders (or floaters) in our study area, which are young adults looking to settle on their first territory with a mate. Since we mark chicks and obsessively re-observe them as young adults, we can test the idea that lower chick production has resulted in fewer floaters. The results are stark. After one adjusts for number of observer-hours spent looking for floaters each year, a dramatic pattern emerges. The population of floaters has plummeted . . . we have seen roughly 1/3 as many floaters from the 2015-year class (which are 4 years old now) as we saw from the 1998-year class. In terms of percentages, we re-observed about 45% of all chicks banded in 1998 and 1999 much later as adults; we see only about 14% of banded chicks as adults these days.”
Dr. Piper goes on to discuss the implications of this decline: “Without floaters, a breeding population cannot sustain itself, because, inevitably, breeders die and must be replaced.” 
 This is exceptionally important research for our area. Column size doesn’t permit me to do justice to all of his analysis - I highly recommend reading his entire blog to learn more.

Hawk Ridge Count Numbers To Date
Overall migrating hawk numbers at Hawk Ridge in Duluth remain low as of this writing (9/16/19), though on 9/15, 1,164 sharp-shinned hawks passed over the ridge, escalating the total number of sharpies counted this fall to 3,477. 
However, only 511 broad-winged hawks have been noted thus far, so the big push is yet to come. Typically, broad-wingeds migrate through our area during a short window of time in September, often being done by 9/25. So, if the winds are right, this weekend could be a big flight. The record seasonal high for broad-wingeds was in 2003 when 160,703 were counted.
I recommend visiting Hawk Ridge today or through the weekend for the Hawk Weekend Festival (9/20-22), which draws many hundreds of hawk watchers, as well as offering numerous guided hikes and programs for visitors. See their web page at
 Though hawk numbers have been small so far, other species have been passing over the ridge in good numbers. A total of 7,211 nighthawks were counted, with the peak day occurring on Aug. 29 when 6,468 flew by, while 2,050 cliff swallows also zoomed over the ridge the same day. 

On 9/15, Mary, Callie, Katlyn Koester, and I walked one of the dikes on Powell Marsh, and fortunately for Mary and me, Callie and Katlyn were walking ahead of us. I say fortunately, because they were continually meeting, close-up and personal, spider threads strung across the dike. I say threads because these weren’t webs, but individual strands of silk just hanging in the air – not attached between two shrubs or trees. 
The only explanation is that spiderlings, tiny baby spiders, had been “ballooning” just before we got there. To balloon, a spiderling, or sometimes an adult, climbs up a branch or a tall herbaceous plant, and then releases silk from its spinnerets. As the silk thread gets longer and longer, the wind catches the silk and carries the little spider away, most of the time only a few feet, but sometimes for miles, much like a child being carried away by a kite. It’s how spiders disperse themselves to new territories. It’s ingenious, but certainly annoying when you walk into the threads.

Celestial Events
            Autumn equinox occurs on 9/23 at 1:50 a.m. Since the Earth is tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees and doesn’t orbit perfectly upright, the Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places gradually throughout the year. We have equinoxes twice a year when our axis is inclined neither away from nor toward the sun. 
On this day, the sun rises due east and sets due west for all of us, making it a good day for finding due east and due west from your yard. Just go outside around sunset or sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to familiar landmarks.
            The new moon occurs on 9/28. On 10/3, look after dusk for Jupiter about 2 degrees below the waxing crescent moon.

Thought for the Week
            Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things. – Thomas Merton

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/6-19/19

A Northwoods Almanac for 9/6-19/19 

            I love my wife Mary for a host of reasons, but one of the best reasons is how she delights in tiny things that only a true lover of plants would enjoy. Last weekend, we were eating our lunch on our deck when she stepped over to some jewelweed flowers that had gone to seed and began popping the tiny pods, literally cackling with laughter as she went. Her “inner junior-high” was in full bloom as she sprung the seeds from pod after pod – it was great to watch. And, of course, I then had to go over and pop some pods, too, and then we had to photograph how the pods curled up like tiny springs after the seeds were sent flying.

            We often spend lunch this way, distracted by some small event or possibility or observation. A bird flitting in the shrubs, some new flower in the marsh, a mushroom we pour over books vainly trying to identify, a lichen we’d never noticed on a tree, and so on. It can make lunch a rather drawn out affair, but always an interesting one.
However, back to jewelweeds. Jewelweeds (Impatiens capensis) have earned their other common name, “touch-me-not,” for precisely this reason – if you touch them, they’ll literally “explode” in your hand. The Latin genus name Impatiensrefers to the impatience they display in dispersing their seeds. The orange or yellow flowers form thin, inch-long seedpods. Pinch the end of one of the ripe pods, and the pod springs instantly apart, unfurling to fling the seeds away. Henry David Thoreau noted this as well: “Touch-me-not seed vessels, as all know, go off like pistols at the slightest touch, and so suddenly and energetically that they always startle you, though you are expecting it.” 

Folk wisdom suggests that jewelweed sap will ease the rash of poison ivy, but at least two controlled clinical studies have shown that jewelweed is no more effective than a placebo.
We’ve had a jewelweed bonanza this year, with far more plants growing “free of charge” on our property than ever before. I credit the wet year we’ve had since this annual plant likes to grow in damp areas. The hummingbirds in our yard have been particularly pleased because the tubular, spurred and lipped flowers are one of their favorites for nectar. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are attracted to the orange-gold flowers of jewelweed, and a single bird can visit as many as 200 flowers in 15 minutes. And in the spirit of reciprocation, the hummers pick up grains of pollen at every flower and deposit them on the next flower they land on, a fair trade indeed. 
The Baby-Saver Plant
            Bee balm/wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Oswego tea (Monarda didyma) are just going-by now. The common names get mixed up on these two species – the flower of bee balm or wild bergamot is usually pale purple, while the flower of Oswego tea is a brilliant scarlet. Both species attract bees like crazy, and both are favorites of hummingbirds, but bee balm is native and prolific in our area while Oswego tea is considered a garden escapee. 
            Many Native American tribes utilized bee balm for digestive and respiratory ailments. The leaves smell both minty and citrusy, a fragrance some feel smeels similar to the cultivated Mediterranean fruit bergamot. Fistulosameans “made of tubes”, an apt description of the tubular flowers. 
bee balm amid yellow coneflower
In the book Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do is Ask, the author, Wendy Makoons Geniusz, an Ojibwe teacher and healer, describes bee balm as the “baby-saver plant” for its role in soothing colic in babies. Misty Cook (Davids), a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, writes in her book Medicine Generations, that bee balm “is the most commonly used Medicine amongst our people still today.” She notes that it’s good for “any kind of cold, flu, aching bones, pneumonia, high fever and/or chills.”
            Oswego tea is common in Northeastern states and apparently was abundant in Oswego Indian territory in New York state. The story goes that in 1743, John Bartram, a botanist, traveled to New York state to help make a treaty with the native people. Here he came across the plant at Fort Oswego, and learned that the Indians used the plant to treat chills and fevers. Bartram then named the plant after the fort – the Indian name for the nearby river. 
While its historic use was medicinal, it was used most often simply for its good taste. 

Fruitful September
            Fruits now ripe, or still coming ripe, as well as a few gone-by in our yard include: elderberry, blueberry, high-bush cranberry, mountain ash, nannyberry, winterberry, pear, apple, plum, blackberry, downy arrow-wood, grape, cranberry, black cherry, currants, Juneberry, alternative-leaved dogwood, and Virginia creeper.
            One edible fruit now profusely available in the woodlands is the bunchberry. However, “edible” does not connote tasty. These berries contain a very large pit, the flesh is slimy, and they’re tasteless. Other than that, bon-appetit. 

Nighthawk, Raptor, and Songbird Migrations
             Tim Kroeff dropped me a note on 8/25 saying, “WOW, are there a lot of nighthawks passing through the area over here west of Minocqua. I assume other people are observing the same.”
A week later, Diane Steele emailed saying: “Just caught a nighthawk migration over the Manitowish Waters ballfield. At least 50. Flying low and feeding.” Many other folks around the state have reported seeing flocks of nighthawks heading south. You might still catch a few in the early September – watch after dawn and before dark.
Nighthawks migrate an exceptionally long distance, some traveling back and forth from Argentina to the far northern Canada each year. They feed almost exclusively on flying insects, so with frosts coming, their eating-on-the-fly means that they are one of the first birds to leave in the fall and one of the latest to return in the spring. They’re typically gone in another week.
In case you forgot, nighthawks are neither a hawk nor nocturnal. They’re more a cousin to whip-poor-wills, and feed most actively at dawn and dusk.
The raptor migration picks up now and peaks in mid-September due to the abundance of broad-winged hawks that come through during this period. As of 9/2 at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, their counters already have tallied 383 bald eagles and 268 sharp-shinned hawks, but the most abundant migrant so far is the nighthawk – so far, they’re observed 7,193 nighthawks flying over the ridge. 
The hawk weekend festival at Hawk Ridge in Duluth takes place on 9/20 to 9/22 and is absolutely worth the drive if you can find the time. Flights of over a thousand broad-wings are relatively common, with the record count of over 102,000 in one day.
Meanwhile, songbirds are flowing south to stay ahead of insect losses to frost. Ryan Brady, an expert birder in Washburn, tallied 163 warblers of 17 different species passing over his yard on 8/30. He also noted that he saw his “first good push of Swainson's Thrushes, a few Pine Siskins, and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher among some Least Flycatchers and migrant Eastern Wood-Pewees. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Buntings, Bobolinks, Cliff Swallows, and others are also on the move.”
It’s both an exciting and sad time of the year to see these birds migrating.

Celestial Events
Observable planets in September are limited to Jupiter and Saturn, both of which are visible respectively in the southwest and south after dusk.
We’re rocketing toward autumn equinox on 9/23. As of 9/7, we’re down to 13 hours of daylight.
On the nights of 9/7 and 9/8, look for Saturn just above the waxing gibbous moon.
The full moon occurs of 9/13. Variously called the Harvest Moon, the Leaves Changing Color Moon, and the Acorns Moon, this will be the most distant and thus smallest full moon of the year.

Thought for the Week
            “What I do here matters. Everybody lives downstream.” –  Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for August 23, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for August 23 – September 5, 2019  

Over the last several weeks, we’ve had a hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) patrolling the bee balm flowers in our perennial garden. Found in the sphinx (hawk) moth family Sphingidae, these moths hover while feeding on flower nectar. We’ve identified three species in our yard over the years, but I’ll bet there’ve been more and we’ve just failed to notice them.
At one and a half inches long, hummingbird clearwings are only half the size of a ruby-throated hummingbird, but they beat their wings at the same impossibly fast rate, and nectar at many different flowers, so it’s easy to think you’ve just discovered a new species of hummingbird. The quick way to know you don’t have a bird is that the moths sport two long antennae, a feature birds simply don’t have.

hummingbird moth photo by John Bates

In caterpillar form, the hummingbird moth is a beautiful lime green with spots along its side and a horn on its back end. They feed on the leaves of honeysuckles, dogbanes, viburnums, snowberries, and others. When the caterpillars are full grown in autumn, they drop to the ground and winter in cocoons in the leaf litter. Since leaf litter is essential to their survival, raking your fall leaves for an immaculate lawn is a death sentence to them; yet another good reason to forsake the rake.  

Late August Flowers
In bloom now: various goldenrods, large-leaf asters, and turtlehead, among many others. 
            Most everyone recognizes goldenrods, but exact species identification is difficult given the many species found in the Northwoods. Goldenrods spread through underground rhizomes which send up new shoots every year. Colonies of clonal goldenrod can become very dense and large, and some are estimated to be 100 years old. 

goldenrod photo by John Bates
            The reputed healing power of goldenrods was the source of the genus name Solidago, meaning in Latin “to make whole”. Ojibwe Indians called it the “sun medicine”, and used it for fevers, sore throats, chest pains, and other ailments. 
            Hay fever sufferers in late summer often blame the flower plumes of goldenrod for their ills, but the blame belongs mostly with ragweed. Goldenrod is insect pollinated, not wind pollinated like ragweed. Insect pollinated plants send very little pollen into the air because the pollen is too heavy; thus goldenrod is absolved of hay fever blame. 
We have many species of asters, varying greatly in color, size, and habitat. But the most common aster in relatively open woods is the large-leaf aster, often forming dense clonal colonies that exclude virtually every other plant species. Why does aster bloom so late in the year? No one can say for sure, but one possibility is the lack of competitors fighting for the available sunlight and soil nutrients, since over 70% of our wildflowers bloom by June 15. On the other hand, autumn days are shorter and cooler which would seem to offset the competitive advantages.
William Quayle in 1907 wrote that asters were “stars fetched from the night skies and planted on the fields of day.” Asteris Greek for “star”, and is the source of other celestial words such as astronaut, astrology, astronomy, asterisk (the “little star”), and even disaster (to be “ill-starred”). Autumn days in the Northwoods are brightly colored not only by the changing leaves but by these hardy flowers which can last well into October.
Finally, when we see turtlehead in flower, it tells us unequivocally that summer is coming to an end. The flowers of this plant look, with a little imagination, like the heads of turtles. Thus, turtlehead was given the scientific name Chelone glabra, because in Greek mythology, the nymph Chelone insulted the gods and in punishment was turned into a turtle. Glabra is from the Latin word meaning “smooth” because of the lack of hairs on the stems and leaves.

turtlehead photo by John Bates 
Goldfinch and Cedar Waxwings: Last to Nest
            Insect-eating songbirds are heading south to stay ahead of the frosts, but American goldfinches and cedar waxwings may still be feeding their chicks. Cedar waxwings often breed late in the year, apparently timed with the availability of summer-ripening fruits. If they nest a second time, they may lay eggs in late August or even later. Unlike many other bird species, their populations have increased during the last 20 years over much of North America likely due to the ever-increasing edge habitats that support fruiting trees and shrubs, especially where farmlands regenerate to forests, and the planting of fruiting trees and shrubs in rural and urban areas. 
Goldfinches normally wait to nest until late June or early July which is thought to be due to their close relationship with the flowering of thistles, an important food plant. In the Northeastern U.S, they may lay eggs as late as mid-August. If there is time for a second nesting, the female abandons the first brood to her mate, then leaves to find another mate.

Hummers on the Move
Late August means it’s time for hummingbirds to be departing. The males leave first, sometimes as early as mid-July. The females follow next, and then the young, who are left to migrate for their first time all alone. Like nearly all juvenile birds that migrate on their own, their DNA is preset to send them a certain direction for a certain distance, which in their case is to Central America. You can follow the migration of hummingbirds on the Journey North website:
Hummingbirds double their weight as they prepare to fly thousands of miles, so keep your feeders out into early October to help provide energy to those who are coming down through our area from Canada.

A Pond is a Lake by Any Other Name
When does a pond become a lake, or a stream become a river, or a hill become a mountain? Well, it’s all semantics, since there is no official definition for any of these terms. But the attempts at definitions become important when there’s regional pride involved – then, the definitions become a matter for debate. In Wisconsin, we have 15,074 lakes, according to our WDNR. On the other hand, our neighbor Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” counts a paltry 11,842, according to their DNR.  
But here’s where the definitional rubber hits the road. Minnesota defines a lake as a body of water greater than 10 acres in area. In Wisconsin, we define a lake as a waterbody over 2.2 acres, a size at which most of us would just call a “pond.” In fact, 60% (over 9,000!) of our 15,074 Wisconsin lakes are so small they don’t even have names. If our Wisconsin DNR used Minnesota’s standard of 10 acres, we’d be bragging about just 5,898 lakes. And interestingly, if Minnesota’s applied its own definition of 10 acres or more to waterbodies within its boundaries, they actually have 11,842 lakes. Thus, Minnesota license plates should read “Land of 11,842 Lakes.”
Why not claim the greater number? Well, Chamber of Commerce types believe it’s too much of a mouthful to say, so Minnesota has chosen a number both easier to say and to remember – 10,000! It’s inaccurate and understated, but also a clever marketing ploy!
So, where can we turn for “the truth” on these definitions? The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) should be our “go to” source, but are they? Nope. The USGS has no official definition of a lake – it lists lakes and ponds in a single category, as well as mountains and hills in a single category, and rivers and creeks in one category. 
To confuse matters further, sometimes rivers widen, and we call the widening a “lake.” Consider the Manitowish River which has Sturgeon Lake and Vance Lake just below the Rest Lake Dam, as well as Benson Lake further downstream, all of which are rather small widenings of the river. When does a widening become a lake of its own? Well, consider that lake property sells for more than river property, and you may have the answer.
I should add that this isn’t just a Midwestern debate. In Massachusetts, Thoreau’s Walden Pond measures 65 acres, which is definitely a lake by both Minnesota and Wisconsin standards.

Hottest July Globally in the 140-Year Record  
The average global temperature in July was 1.71 degrees F above the 20th-century average of 60.4 degrees, making it the hottest July in the 140-year record, according to scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. The previous hottest month on record was July 2016. 
Nine of the 10 hottest Julys have occurred since 2005—with the last five years ranking as the five hottest. Last month was also the 43rd consecutive July and 415th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures.
Average Arctic sea ice also set a record low for July, running 19.8% below average – surpassing the previous historic low of July 2012. And the average Antarctic sea-ice coverage was 4.3% below the 1981-2010 average, making it the smallest for July in the 41-year record. 
Demonstrating the difference between local weather and global climate, some localities were cooler in July: Parts of Scandinavia and western and eastern Russia had temperatures at least 2.7 degrees F below average. 

87 Percent of Americans Still Unaware There's Scientific Consensus on Climate Change       
According to a report published in July, only 13 percent of Americans were able to correctly identify that more than 97 percent of all climate scientists have concluded that climate change is real. Given the consequences of our lack of knowledge and resultant inaction, we’re surely tempting a profoundly difficult fate for ourselves, but in particular for our children. 

Celestial Events
            The new moon occurs on 8/30. On 9/5, look after dusk for Jupiter two degrees below the waxing moon. 

Thought for the Week
            “I’m thinking it’s a paltry sense of wonder that requires something new every day. I confess: Wonder is easy when you travel to desert islands in search of experiences you have never imagined, in search of something you have never seen before, in search of wonder, the shock of surprise. It’s easy, and maybe it’s cheap. It’s not what the world asks of us. 
            “To be worth of the astonishing world, a sense of wonder will be a way of life, in every place and time, no matter how familiar; to listen in the dark of every night, to praise the mystery of every returning day, to be astonished again and again, to be grateful with an intensity that cannot be distinguished from joy.” – Kathleen Dean Moore, Wild Comfort

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call 715-476-2828, e-mail at, snail-mail at 4245N State Highway 47, Mercer, WI, or see my blog at